When Zitao is sixteen, his father dies.
The police report rules it an accident: "Fell asleep at the wheel," it reads. "Failed to negotiate turn. Death on impact."
It's wrong and Zitao knows it but no one listens, no matter how loudly he screams at the precinct captain to reopen the case. He knows he's out of line—he's watching the faces of his father's co-workers as they shake their heads, averting their eyes because they're too ashamed to watch him come undone. He can read the words on their lips even if he can't hear them: "Traumatized. Poor kid."
His father's long-time partner, Detective Tsang, is a little more sympathetic, but barely: "Stop making a scene, Zitao," he says brusquely, voice growling slightly in the back of his throat like he's forgotten to clear it. Zitao looks into his face and feels spite pinching at his face, narrowing his eyes until he's looking through his eyelashes at the face of a man who'd been close enough to be called uncle, a man who'd come to every birthday party and every family dinner and hadn't once indicated his capacity to be this unfeeling. "You're the man of the house now. You can't act like a child anymore."
"Would the man of the house let something like this go?" he growls, fists balling against his side. He wants to take a swing but he's not sure who he wants to hit first and he knows he won't be able to make contact with everyone he wants to before he's restrained and dragged out. "It wasn't an accident," he insists. "It couldn't have been."
"He was tired, Zitao. He'd just worked for fourteen hours—"
Zitao storms out and the room becomes a shaken snow globe as the door swings, papers fluttering in his wake.
It comes to him in bursts every time he lies down and tries to sleep, short transmissions of morse code-pinpricks behind his eyelids, orangey-red and brilliant like roadside flares. How can a car sustain that much damage and kill a person without leaving a scratch? It can't. Somebody dumped the body. He wakes up screaming, throat raw, his mother looming in the door frame as she pleads for him to stop, just stop, Zitao, I know, I know. He looks in her eyes and sees the same resigned look he saw the morning of the funeral and he can't stop the anger from welling deep inside him, hot and furious, souring in the pit of his stomach.
How dare they.
Whoever they are.
He's determined to find out, though. He'll do it alone if he has to.
He spends days wandering the streets with his friends, stuffing themselves full of fried food and kicking around plastic coke bottles in impromptu football matches that never last longer than a block before they're distracted by a storefront or a particularly tempting smell wafting from a food cart. He even stops by his old martial arts studio one afternoon to say hello to Sifu Luo and thank him for sending over some old photographs—eight-year-old Zitao holding horse stance, twelve-year-old Zitao beaming proudly after he'd mastered a particularly tricky move with the gun. He hadn't been back in years, but something about his father's death made him nostalgic for the sweaty smell of gym mats, the afternoons spent after school running drills, the weekend competitions. His father used to stop by after he'd finished his beat to watch the back half of class, nodding in approval every time Zitao managed a clean execution of a punch he'd been struggling with the week before. They'd walk home together afterwards in the settling twilight, Zitao swinging his school bag over his shoulder and chattering about the day.
He'd stopped shortly after the last picture was taken, maybe a year, tops—no time anymore, no desire. No motivation. His father had been extremely disappointed, but Zitao had shrugged it off every time he brought it up. Let me make my own choices, he'd insisted, pig-headed as always. His father had backed off. Looking at the calluses on Sifu Luo's hands and then back at his own soft palms, Zitao kind of wishes his father hadn't relented. Yet another thing he'd taken for granted.
He's made little progress on his father's case. He carries around dog-eared copies of the police report, makes notes in the margins on inconsistencies in stories: he finished work at eight—no, ten—he was investigating a robbery—he'd closed that case, he was following up on an interview with a witness across town instead. Nobody seems able to give him a straight answer.
The timeline becomes murkier still when one day, he makes an attempt to help his mother by sorting through the boxes of his father's things she still can't bring herself to touch. The banker's box is stuffed to the brim with receipts for things like coffee and takeout — nothing out of the ordinary for an investigator that spent more time watching suspects from the dark cocoon of his beat-up sedan than eating home-cooked meals across the table from his sullen teenage son. He almost misses the notebook in his haste to clear the contents of the box and move onto the next. It's small, inconspicuous with its black leather cord wound tightly and knotted twice. He looks down at his shoes, then back at the notebook and smiles a little. He'd only ever learned one knot from his father, and it seems there's a very good reason for that.
The notebook's filled with pages of his father's tiny, meticulous handwriting, an entire book filled with nonsense, strings of characters and numbers that seem to mean something, but he holds it upside down and squints and still can't decipher it. Occasionally he'll catch a repeated sequence, but without any context he's hopelessly lost. Of one thing he's mostly certain: his father had been keeping notes on something—something important enough to keep it completely encoded, on the off-chance it fell into the wrong hands. Zitao wonders if he's the right hands. He makes a mental note to talk to Tsang about it and pockets it.
He does not tell his mother.
He spends the rest of the summer trying to make sense of the notes left behind but the progress is maddeningly slow. Everything's written in some peculiar shorthand, encoded so heavily that come August he's still not quite sure if he's reading the dates at the top of the pages correctly, or if they're even dates at all.
He finally gets around to visiting Tsang at the precinct. Their greetings are stuffy and awkward, rife with unresolved tension from the last time they'd spoken. He seems taken aback when Zitao pushes the little book onto his desk and flips it open to a page at random.
"Zitao. What is this?" he asks, his voice lilting with curiosity. Zitao lets him prise it out from under his grip and leaf through it, watching the sheen of the fluorescent light illuminate the globe of Tsang's bald scalp as he shakes his head.
"I found it in Dad's things," he says. He flips to the page that's been fascinating him the most and runs his fingers around the outline of the rat doodled at the corner, an idle sketch on a stakeout, perhaps. Cigarettes, it reads, one of the few complete words contained in the entire book. He didn't smoke. "Why would he need to take notes in code? What was he working on?"
Tsang eyes him carefully. "He didn't tell you?"
"Why would he?" Zitao frowns. "He never talked about work when he was at home. Mom wouldn't allow it. She said the minute he came in the door it was time to be a family and he wasn't supposed to bring any of the bad parts of his work home with him. You remember."
Tsang nods. He'd been present for the dinners when a ringing phone pulled his father into the kitchen, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. Always the same thing: "Think I need to take a walk. Mind joining me?" which left Zitao and his mother to wrap plates of food in aluminum foil and towels to keep warm until they returned.
"Was there something big? You—you were his partner. He'd tell you," Zitao says, fighting the urge to sit on the floor and cry. He's really been trying to be the adult everyone expected him to become the minute his father died, so he sets his jaw into what he hopes is a confident expression and waits.
He's not sure how to read Tsang's expression—it's almost bemused, eyes kind despite the severe slant of his mouth. The office is chaotic as always with the bustling of bodies and paperwork, familiar faces of people he knows he's met before peering at him as they meander by, trying to conceal their curiosity with eyes buried into files. The unwarranted interest radiates from them regardless, and Zitao finds he's annoyed. Not one of these people has stopped by to say hello or to inquire about his mother's welfare. Not a single lousy soul.
Tsang's voice brings him out of his thoughts. "Let me keep this. I'll pass it along, maybe forensics can make sense of it."
Zitao cradles the notebook protectively against his chest. It hasn't left his sight since he found it, always tucked in a pocket or safely under his pillow. It feels weird and childish to say out loud but he feels like it's the closest thing he has left of his father. Every time he runs his fingers across the page and feels the indentations from the pressure of the ballpoint pen it reassures him: the answer's here, somewhere. His father's showing him which way to go.
Tsang notices his reluctance and chuckles. "Okay, okay. How about a copy, then? Can I borrow it long enough for that?"
It takes nearly twenty minutes to photocopy the notebook in its entirety but Zitao feels better when it's back in his pocket and Tsang's clipping the stack of papers together with a large butterfly clip.
"I'll give you a call if they come up with anything, Zitao," he says, eyes crinkling at the corners. "By the way, where are you living these days? I stopped by the house—"
"We're with my grandparents now."
Tsang's head inclines with understanding. "I wondered. I'll have to stop by soon. See how your mother's doing."
Zitao bows past ninety degrees, sight lingering on his knotted shoelaces as he murmurs, "She'd like that," practically into his kneecaps.
Zitao's almost out the door when Tsang's voice calls out to him.
He turns. "Hm?"
The seriousness in his eyes haunts Zitao the entire walk home.
When his mother excuses herself to take a nap, Zitao shows Tsang to the door and holds it open while the older man hesitates in the threshold. Finally, he seems to come to a decision and gestures for Zitao to follow him out into the hallway, a finger pressed to his lips.
"I passed your father's notebook along to forensics last week. They called in a cryptographer." Zitao nods, eyebrows raised expectantly. Tsang shakes his head. "I wish I could say she's had any luck, but there aren't any consistent threads from one page to the next. Every page seems to be written using a different code."
Despite the frustrating news, Zitao snorts in amusement. It sounds just like his father to take being thorough to the extreme. "Why would he do that?"
"I have to ask—I know your father didn't really discuss work at home, but have you heard anything about the Scorpion Cartel?"
Zitao frowns, trying to recall. The name sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps something he's read in a newspaper. "Triads?"
"A splinter cell. Consists of members of the Wu family, maybe a few outsiders. Incredibly violent, responsible for the deaths of at least fifteen people since they appeared on the radar a decade ago." Tsang licks his lips nervously. "Those are just the ones we know about. In reality, the body count is probably five times that. They're very good at what they do."
"What does that have to do with my father?" Zitao clutches at Tsang's shoulder. "Did they kill him?"
"I have no proof, Zitao. Only a few words the cryptographer's managed to crack have me thinking." He shrugs. "It might be nothing at all."
"Which ones? Which page?" He's got the entire notebook memorized by heart at this point. These days, he carries it around in his pocket out of comfort more than anything else. He pulls it out now, though, his hand poised and ready to flip to the place in question.
"I don't have it with me, Zitao," Tsang chides crossly. "I'm not supposed to be discussing this with you at all. As far as the department's concerned, this was strictly a personal visit."
"What do you remember, then?" Zitao persists. "Was my father working on a case that involved the Scorpion Cartel? Did they do this?"
Tsang sighs, voice heavy with reluctance when he finally speaks. "Not directly. They're excellent delegators. It's been difficult to attach their name to any of the high profile crimes we've suspected them of committing."
"Then?" Zitao prompts.
Tsang rubs the back of his neck and looks at the floor. "I don't know, Zitao. I don't want to give you false hope."
"You're not. I have to know everything that you've got so far, though. Please."
"I'll tell you this." Tsang leans in, eyes darting towards the open apartment door as he lowers his voice to a whisper. "We're currently looking for his son. Yifan, born in 1990. He was rumored to be attending a boarding school in Canada, and now he's dropped off the map. We're concerned he's being groomed to take over his father's empire. The old man can't hold onto the reins all by himself forever, not with the high-risk lifestyle he chooses to embrace."
"A kid killed my dad?" Zitao scoffs in disbelief. "No way."
"Scorpions are contract killers." Tsang rocks back on his heels. "I wouldn't put it past them to send a kid to do their dirty work. They're cold, Zitao. Ruthless. I'm telling you this in the hopes that you'll back off—we can handle this. If the Scorpions are involved, you could run to the ends of the earth and you still wouldn't be safe. Your dad would never forgive me if I didn't look after you and your mother, so I'm asking you once: let us do our job."
Zitao's scared now. He manages to nod and squeak a noise of agreement. Tsang's eyes soften. Zitao feels a little ashamed. He's trying so hard to be brave.
"It'll be okay." Tsang ruffles Zitao's hair affectionately. Zitao feels very small all of a sudden, like he's eight years old all over again. "You'll come to me right away if you see anything suspicious?"
"If you'll keep me updated on the notebook."
"I think I can manage that." The space between them in the hallway grows wide as Tsang retreats. "Leave it to me. You worry about keeping out of trouble and being good to your mother. I'll make sure we get to the bottom of this."
Strange, he thinks, turning the heavy envelope between his fingertips. There's no return address, just his name scrawled in hasty, spluttering ink. Huang Zitao. His grandparents' address. He squints a little at the stamp at the right-hand side, confused by the unfamiliar lettering.
He's even more confused when he opens it and it's an acceptance to Akademie SM, some private boarding school in the Czech Republic he's never even heard of until he does a cursory internet search and discovers it's produced more presidents and CEOs of more Global 500 companies than any other single institution in the world, not to mention the career politicians, the scientists, the economists. Most acceptances are legacies, sons of business magnates and upper-level diplomats, eager to be groomed for the inevitable day when they would assume their fathers' positions, uphold the family traditions. He scrolls through the Wikipedia list of alumni, mouth agape in wonder. Every major Asian and European company boasts an SM alum. This must be a mistake. He looks back at the envelope. But there's his name, clear as day. His address.
"Zitao, what have you done?" his mother asks crossly when he brings her the letter and a pamphlet he's printed off the computer. "What was wrong with your old school?"
"I didn't do anything, I swear," he says with wide eyes. "I've never heard of this place."
"I'll give them a call. We'll get this sorted out," his grandfather says, rescuing the paper from the kitchen table. "Maybe it's a scam."
"Or a mistake," his grandmother adds kindly, comforting hands clasping around his shoulders. He appreciates the gesture. He's a lot taller than he used to be (towers over the small woman, in fact) and he bends his knees slightly so it's easier for her to reach.
As baffling as it is, it's not a mistake. Zitao's grandfather is on the phone with the headmaster for a solid hour, a barrage of questions at the ready. It sounds like there's a patient answer to every one as Zitao sits in the other room on the floor, legs crossed, head leaning tiredly against the doorframe. He plays with the envelope, runs his palm along where his name is written and listens, twists it over and over between two fingers until the receiver rattles gently against the cradle as his grandfather hangs up and clears his throat.
The apartment is silent. He hears the long, airy sigh of his mother, the creak of his grandmother's chair as she rises to put the kettle on. Outside, children are playing in the street, their shrieks of laughter muffled by the roar of passing traffic.
"Well," his grandfather says after a moment. "It looks like we'll need to get Zitao a passport."
It proves to be more complicated than just a passport—there are visas and transfer paperwork, transcripts to be requested from his old high school, not to mention the mountain of forms he and his mother have to sign before he's able to leave the country and (he still can't believe it) start attending SM. Classes have already started by the time he's packed and ready to go. He'll be starting as a second year and he groans miserably when he realizes that it's a five year program, designed to cover college curriculum during the final two in a streamlined effort to bypass traditional four-year universities and jumpstart the students' admission into MBA programs or further graduate study at places like the London School of Economics. His grandfather rattles off the impressive statistics of where recent students have chosen to continue their education and Zitao feels so drained he has to put his head in his hands before his grandfather's finished speaking.
Zitao hadn't even been thinking about university, much less anything that came after that. When he stops to contemplate what's happening to him he feels overwhelmed, his head spinning dizzily when he remembers the conversation he'd had with his grandfather after the phone call, after his mother had gone to bed with a headache and his grandmother had stepped out of the kitchen to give them some privacy.
"Someone sent in the application on your behalf."
"Why? I can't go, anyway. We can't afford that type of expense, not with Dad—"
"That's how I know it wasn't your father."
They've always been fairly well-off, but they're not that wealthy, and Zitao doesn't know a single person capable of paying four years of private school tuition with one personal check. It doesn't make sense.
He struggles to say goodbye to his friends, takes loads of selcas with them and promises to write every single day. Listening to them chatter excitedly about the upcoming year makes him ache. He's grown up with these people. He'd thought he'd be graduating with them as well. Saying goodbye to his family is even harder—he wonders, briefly, as he packs his suitcase and looks around the apartment, if he's making the right decision.
"You should go," his mother says, watching him from the doorway. "This will be good for you, Zitao. An excellent opportunity."
She's been reading the Wikipedia page. It's taken a long time to get her on board, longer than his grandparents who saw Akademie SM and saw future, saw potential. They expect great things from him and he feels like he'll never meet their expectations but with the trepidation comes something else, fiery and hot—the desire to try. His mother, on the other hand... her reluctance to let go of the last member of the immediate family lingered well until his paperwork had been processed, his visa issued. Even now it's tentative, almost feels forced when he looks in her eyes and sees the melancholy.
He worries. "Are you sure—"
"Your father would be disappointed with me if I kept you from this," she says simply. It's not what she wants and he knows it, but it's what's best. He tries to comfort himself with the knowledge that she won't be alone, that she'll be with her parents, but it's difficult when he's already feeling homesick and he hasn't even left yet.
He packs light: a few sets of clothing, his newly-purchased uniforms. He slips some photographs into a backpack along with a few books, an entire manuscript's worth of paperwork, and a prepaid calling card he'd also been given. For emergencies. He's not sure what kind of emergencies he might run into but he's hoping he won't have to use it.
He tucks his father's notebook amongst his belongings and takes a last look around at his makeshift bedroom. If nothing else, it'll be nice to sleep in a real bed again, he thinks.
"Are you ready?" his mother asks, voice soft with tears she's desperately fighting. "We've got to get going to the airport, Zitao."
He feels his own eyes sting and blinks hard. He refuses to cry. His father never would have allowed it, not in front of his mother. When his voice comes it's hoarse, the words tiptoeing past the lump in his throat. "Yes. I'm coming."
The flight takes nearly eleven hours, which is bad enough on its own, but since it's his first time on an airplane it's absolutely agonizing. His iPod dies somewhere over Russia and he curses himself for not checking the battery the night before as he winds up his headphones and shoves it in the front pocket of his backpack. He finishes both books he brought with him and spends most of his time staring out the window and fending off the dozy head of the passenger sitting next to him.
When he arrives, he's so petrified at the realization that he's in a foreign country halfway across the globe and away from his family that he nearly turns on his heel and begs to get back on the plane. There are people everywhere, none of them speaking a language he even begins to grasp. He tries to find common ground with English, though, to varying degrees of success. In his search for a taxi he pulls out his map and approaches a sweaty, tired looking cab driver who spits on the ground and stares at him blankly when he says, "English? I need a ride to my school." The next three drivers react similarly—one shakes his head and says, "No—too far," and takes him into the city instead, but that's not an encouraging step in the right direction and he's not confident enough with his travel book of phrases he'd purchased at the airport bookstore to attempt any form of public transportation. With his luck, he'd end up somewhere in Germany and he'd be even later for his first day of school.
Besides, they're expecting him tonight.
He debates the merits of hitch-hiking the hundred-odd kilometers outside of Prague into the Czech countryside, calculates the likelihood of being picked up by a serial killer until he's finally offered a lift by an old man in Charles Square. He leads Zitao across the bridge and to the outskirts of town where a rusting old truck is parked and waiting, one taillight smashed, the wires hanging uselessly against the bumper.
Communication proves to be difficult, limited mostly to hand signals and the man's broken English, but Zitao points at the school on the map and holds out his wallet and it's settled. The floor is littered with straw and the truck's bearings rattle like a loose box of screws every time they go over a bump which happens frequently enough that Zitao starts worrying that his teeth will be knocked loose if he doesn't hold his face, so he does exactly that.
The man smells like sweet tobacco and he steals glances over at Zitao when he thinks he's not looking. "Akademie?" he says finally. "You a smart kid." The wind whips against the open windows, the brusque September chill snapping at his cheeks, the smell of wood smoke curling around them as they hurtle along. The truck accelerates.
He nods graciously although he doesn't feel smart at the moment, not when he can't even tell if they're heading in the right direction. His fretting turns out to be for naught, however, when they round a corner at a breakneck speed and turn onto an unpaved road lined with trees.
"Here," the man says, flicking on his headlights to combat the settling twilight. "Akademie."
"Where?" Zitao leans forward, elbows on the dashboard as he cranes his neck for a better view. All he sees are trees, and then—
There it is, like something out of a storybook. His breath catches in his throat and his eyes are stinging again with unbidden emotion at how beautiful his new school is as it rises out of the forest, the outline of the brick and stone building becoming less blurred, more definite as they approach. It's real.
"Wow," he breathes. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Is beautiful," the man agrees in his clipped speech. He flings a hand across Zitao's face, nearly winging him in the nose as he points across the field. "I drop you there?"
"Yes," Zitao says gratefully. He slips him an extra bank note as the man brings his luggage around to the cobblestone walkway in front of the school and the man breaks into a wide grin. Shit. How much did I just give him? he wonders but it's too late; the truck's engine restarts with a tiger's growl and roars back down the long stony drive into the night.
He's here. After everything, he's finally made it.
Zitao swallows heavily and turns to look up. Being up close to the school makes it seem ominous, somehow. He's not an expert on architecture, especially European architecture, but the building's old, over a hundred years at least, judging from the way the ivy creeps up the stone wall like it's always been there. Lights dot the windows, curtains glowing yellow against lamps from within. Signs of life. Signs of his peers.
He's scared to meet them but he knows he can't put it off forever. The door is heavy under his hands and he pushes it for a moment before he realizes he's supposed to be pulling it instead and yanks it open, embarrassed. He hasn't bothered to set his watch for the local time but he does some quick math in his head and it's late. Past dinner. Everyone's probably settling in for the evening to finish homework and go to bed. He'd significantly underestimated the difficulty in finding transportation to the school and hopes there's still someone in the main office that can process his paperwork and find him a room to sleep in.
His worrying is interrupted by another person's presence. There's a bright-eyed boy waiting for him in the main foyer just past the entrance, his chin in one hand, a book in the other. He looks up as Zitao struggles to slip through the doors with his suitcase under one arm and his backpack swinging awkwardly from the crook of his elbow. He nearly makes it in time to help and Zitao feels hot pangs of embarrassment as he drops the suitcase on the boy's feet. The sound echoes awkwardly in the barren chamber and the boy gives him a sympathetic smile despite the assault.
"Sorry, I wasn't quite fast enough." He bends over to pick up the suitcase and Zitao thinks wow, he's tall for the first time since he hit puberty. He's unaccustomed to being shorter than anyone, but there's a first time for everything and he knows this entire adventure puts him into uncharted territory. Zitao lets his eyes travel upwards, studying his companion with subdued interest. He's got shaggy, fawn-colored hair, the telltale black roots peeking through the hairband pushing it out of his dark brown eyes. He's in the school's uniform—sort of, anyway. His shirt is rolled up to the elbows, necktie pulled loose. There's no sign of either a jacket or a vest. Zitao wonders if this is acceptable or if the boy's able to get away with it because the faculty aren't around.
"Did you have a safe trip?" the boy asks. "We were starting to get worried you were lost out there."
His English is lightyears ahead of Zitao's. Zitao smiles politely and shakes his head. "It was okay. I'm sorry I'm late." He shoulders his bag and tries to reclaim his suitcase but the boy shakes his head and holds it out of reach.
"Not a problem, Zitao. It's good you're safe. You must be tired — the headmaster instructed me to take you to your room and to let you know that you can go visit the office tomorrow to deal with your transfer papers."
Zitao nods. The distance and weight of today's journey hits him like a sledgehammer and he isn't sure if he'll have the energy to meet his roommate or even bother to wash up before he sleeps.
"I'm Kris, by the way," he tosses over his shoulder, leading Zitao down a corridor and up a narrow flight of stairs that winds up several floors before opening onto a long, hallway of closed doors, each one decorated by a pair of names. The dormitory. "I'm a prefect here."
"Kind of like a class president, but with fewer classroom duties. It's mostly dormitory stuff—you have a problem, anything at all, just come to me. We're kind of like big brothers for you guys." He points at three rooms along the way that only have one name apiece. "Here's my room. This is Lu Han's room, and that's Minseok's," he says, "although you're more likely to find him in the library than in his room. Something to keep in mind for the future."
Zitao files this information away as Kris stops in front of the last door before the hallway veers off to the right, presumably to another set of rooms. The door already has two names on the placard: Byun Baekhyun, Park Chanyeol.
"Here we are," Kris intones, rapping briskly with two knuckles before he jiggles the handle. "Hello?"
"Kris? Come in." A deep voice resonates through the door as Kris pushes it open and peers around the edge.
"Hey guys. Sorry to bother you, but he's here."
"Who's here?" The voice sounds confused. "I don't—"
A second voice cuts in. "Finally! I was beginning to think you were just messing with me." A cheerful face appears at the gap, hair obscured by a towel until the boy pulls it away to reveal a mess of sandy brown hair. His chest is bare and still damp from a recent shower.
"You're shameless." Kris snorts. "Greeting your new roommate half-naked? Is this how the Byun family practices hospitality?"
"I always like to give a good first impression," the boy shoots back, stepping aside to pull the door wide. "Come in. It's cold out there."
"Zitao, this is Baekhyun." Kris sets Zitao's suitcase just inside the door. "And over there is Chanyeol. Chanyeol. This is Zitao."
The owner of the deep voice swivels in his desk chair to regard Zitao with a pair of large, coffee-colored eyes. "New roommate? I—"
"It's okay," Baekhyun says breezily, abandoning the wet towel at the foot of his bed. "Kris and I already talked about it. I agreed since we've got the biggest room in the hall. Seems only fair we take him."
"Were you going to involve me in this discussion at any point?" Chanyeol runs a hand through his black, close-cropped hair. Zitao does not miss the unfriendly tone.
Kris senses the tension in the room and offers, "If you're worried about your detail, the PSS already reviewed his file and he's been cleared—"
"I wasn't, actually. I was worried about my space. My privacy. Where the fuck is he supposed to go?" Chanyeol stands. The chair creaks underneath him, underscoring his protest with a loud, indignant squawk. "Why are we getting a new student two weeks into the term, anyway?"
"Chanyeol," Kris says quietly. There's a buttery smoothness to his voice that wasn't there before and it reels Chanyeol back into his seat, sullen but compliant. Zitao looks between them and sees a warning flicker in Kris's eyes. Chanyeol's defiant expression subdues.
"Fine." He turns back to the open book on his desk. "As long he stays out of the way."
"Hey. It's his room, now, too." Baekhyun tugs a wrinkled, heather-grey t-shirt over his head, voice muffled by the fabric as he admonishes, "You're not being the magnanimous son of the President right now, by the way. You're being Park Chanyeol, executive douche of the unwelcoming committee."
"That's not a thing," Chanyeol mutters into his homework. Baekhyun redirects his attention to Zitao again. His smile is very bright and very wide, lips curled upwards against a mouthful of straight, white teeth.
"It's okay, Zitao. Ignore him. We all do." He winks mischievously. "I cleared out a drawer for you."
Kris claps a hand on Zitao's shoulder for a moment and he flashes back to his kitchen: his grandmother, the gentle whistle of a boiling kettle. I want to go home, he thinks, followed rapidly by, but this is home now and the anxiety laces tightly up his chest. By the time he's able to shake himself out of it, Kris is halfway through saying something.
"—in the morning. You know where my room is if you need anything. Come by anytime, day or night."
Zitao nods absently. He barely gets out, "Thank you. Goodnight," before the door's closed behind him and he's alone with Baekhyun and Chanyeol, who's still hunched over his desk and refusing to turn around.
"Is this all you have for now?" Baekhyun breaks the silence cheerfully, pointing at his suitcase. "How much more is coming?"
"Coming?" Zitao asks.
"More—belongings?" Baekhyun speaks slowly, enunciating each word. He mimes along with what he's saying—arms spread wide on more, hands flailing erratically in the direction of Zitao's luggage on belongings.
Zitao resists the urge to roll his eyes. He's not an idiot and doesn't particularly appreciate being treated like one. "This is it. Nothing else."
Across the room, Chanyeol's shoulders draw up to his ears. His body language radiates irritation, all sharp angles and slow, deliberate movements. "So where's he going to sleep, Baekhyun?" He still doesn't face either of them.
"The futon," Baekhyun replies easily. "We've done this before. Remember, when the pipe in the bathroom burst? Jongdae and Kyungsoo's room flooded—"
This finally provokes Chanyeol into joining the conversation properly. He clubs his elbow hard against the corner of the desk when he twists around. His face contorts in pain as he rubs the offended joint. "He's paying how much a year—"
"It's not permanent. You're okay with this for now, right? Just until they bring a bed in?"
Zitao feels bewildered, the jetlag heavy and sore behind his eyeballs. Everything hurts. Thinking in a different language is not helping the situation. "I—yes?" He realizes, belatedly, what he's agreed to. The futon's crammed behind the door next to the other desk, piled high with textbooks and abandoned piles of laundry that have yet to find a home in the dresser. He can't imagine how they're going to fit another bed in this room. He adds it to the list of things to worry about after he's gotten some sleep and hopes he remembers this conversation in the morning.
"They're seriously planning on—"
"Shut up, Chanyeol." Impatience starts edging into Baekhyun's cheerful tone. "That's enough. It's done." He glances back over at Zitao. "You look dead on your feet. Why don't you wash up and get some sleep?"'
Zitao agrees with the assessment. Baekhyun gives him an abbreviated tour of the communal bathrooms, warns him of the dangers of trying to take a shower ten minutes before class ("Because that's when everyone's trying to take one," he explains) and Zitao's finally, finally crawling into bed after washing his face and running a toothbrush across his teeth. He'll bother with a proper clean-up in the morning. Chanyeol refuses to turn off the lamp despite Baekhyun's pleas but Zitao can't work it up to care, just rolls over to block out the worst of the light. He's so fucking tired at this point that he's pretty sure he could sleep through a full-scale invasion and not even stir for gunfire.
He pulls the covers up to his chin—a thin blanket scavenged from underneath Baekhyun's bed, because he hadn't thought to bring his own bedding—and his eyelids are already sinking when he realizes he hasn't even called his mother to let her know he arrived safely.
I'll do it in the morning. Another thing for the list.
At long last, he sleeps.
"Hmm?" He sits up, shoulders still heavy with fatigue. He can't believe it's morning already—he's pretty sure he only fell asleep twenty minutes ago, or at least that's what his entire body is trying to tell him. His muscles protest angrily when he stretches his arms over his head and leans over, first to the left, then to the right. "What?"
"Breakfast? Classes?" He straightens up and Zitao notices for the first time that Baekhyun is completely dressed. His fingers are working on straightening the knot of his tie as he speaks. "Kris told me I need to show you to the administrative office."
"What time is it?" Zitao's hand fumbles in his backpack for his watch—which proves to be no help whatsoever because it's still not set to local time. He blinks again, mind too foggy to do the math in his head.
"Nearly seven." Baekhyun ruffles his hair. "Jetlag's a bitch, I know. Take a quick shower and come downstairs to the dining hall. We'll meet you there. Don't take forever."
Zitao nods. It's not until Baekhyun's left him on his own in the room that he realizes he's got no clue where the fuck the dining hall is.
He manages to find it. He follows the sound of chattering students and clinking plates down the stairs he'd taken with Kris last night, through the foyer and down a long corridor. He's ten minutes later than he thought he'd be thanks to complications with his uniform. The tie looked much easier to manage when Baekhyun was tying it. He struggles with it in the mirror for a while, noting the dark circles under his eyes with displeasure before he gives up and shoves it into his pocket. He tucks his mountain of paperwork under his arm and slips his father's notebook in the inside pocket of his blazer. He's not ready—but then again, he's not sure an extra twelve hours of sleep would make him any more prepared for this.
When he walks through the doors, the noise in the dining hall nearly deafens him. He's amazed at the sheer volume, especially this early in the morning. Baekhyun grabs him by the wrist as he walks past and yanks him down into the empty seat next to him.
"Didn't you hear me calling you? Did you get lost? Where's your tie?" He's got jam at the corner of his mouth—red, probably raspberry—and Zitao tears his eyes away from it long enough to shake his head.
"It's in my pocket," he says, deciding that answering one of the numerous rapid-fire questions was good enough for now. Certainly an improvement on the word salad of gibberish he'd offered in response to Baekhyun's queries the night before.
"Well, get it out," he instructs, cramming the rest of his toast in his mouth. "You'll get in trouble if you're not wearing it."
"You don't know how to tie it?" The boy across the table leans over, hands outstretched. "Come here, let me. It's easy." His hair is coiffed neatly off his face. Zitao puts his hand up to his own hair—black, fringe long enough to hide his eyebrows, shaved at the side (his mother always hated it like that, said he looked too tough)—and wishes he'd spent more than ten seconds fussing with it that morning. He knows he looks a mess. He'll try to get up earlier tomorrow.
"That's Jongdae," Baekhyun manages to say around the mouthful of half-chewed bread. "Guys, this is Zitao. New student."
Zitao hands his tie over to Jongdae and leans in to let him tie it around his neck. He manages it in less time than Zitao thinks he'll ever be able to, sliding the knot to rest against his top button before he steps back to admire his handiwork. Zitao murmurs a shy, grateful thank you in Jongdae's general direction as he settles back in his chair.
"Are you a third year like Baekhyun and Jongdae?" another boy asks. He's small—smaller than Baekhyun, even—with large doe eyes that give him a startled, wary expression until he smiles and gives a little wave. "I'm Kyungsoo."
Zitao shakes his head. "Second."
"So's Kyungsoo. You guys will have classes together." Baekhyun waves his hand distractedly between the two of them like the gesture substitutes for a proper introduction. He's looking across the room at something and Zitao follows his gaze to a far table, where Chanyeol and Kris are sitting with a few other boys. "Jongdae, did Yixing leave anything—"
"Not yet. I asked him about it when I saw him in the bathroom earlier this morning," Jongdae says enigmatically. "He says give him a few hours. He was too busy working on Cermak's assignment until late last night."
"Cermak's ridiculous." Kyungsoo shakes his head, pushing a plate of unbuttered toast across the table at Zitao. "Is he that afraid of being seen as a pushover? It's the second week of classes."
"New teachers always feel like they have something to prove." Jongdae shrugs. "Don't worry about it. He'll ease up. Remember—he's got to grade all those assignments after he collects them. It'll get old." He turns to Baekhyun, who's still staring pointedly at Chanyeol. Next to Kris, Chanyeol busies himself tearing into a croissant. He either doesn't feel the burning stare or doesn't give enough of a damn to acknowledge it. "Relax. He'll get it out to us by lunch, I'm sure. That should be plenty of time."
Baekhyun makes a noise of agreement in the back of his throat, mind clearly elsewhere. He seems to snap out of it after a moment and looks over at Zitao. "You finished? I can take you to the office now."
Zitao looks down at his plate. He's barely eaten anything. A combination of unfamiliar cuisine and exhaustion has killed his appetite. He's been picking at the toast, mostly out of habit than hunger. He slides it away. "Yes. I'm ready."
"Baekhyun, what's the hurry?" Kyungsoo puts a hand on Zitao's forearm to stop him from standing up. "He's not done. Is there something you need to do?"
"I just—need to talk to Yixing before class," he says sheepishly. "Sorry, Zitao. I didn't mean to rush you—"
"It's okay, I'm done." Zitao brandishes the thick packet. "I really should take care of this."
"Good." Baekhyun flashes him a relieved smile. "I'll walk you there. It's not far."
He leads Zitao out of the dining hall and back through the foyer he'd come into last night. The vaulted ceilings and long, winding corridors intimidate the hell out of Zitao. He struggles to keep his mental map of the building straight and debates asking for one on paper before they're in front of a large wooden door with a burnished brass placard that reads Alexandru Brodsky, Headmaster in heavy block script.
"Here's the office. Administrative offices are all down this hallway. Classes are in the next building. Go out the door past the dining hall and you can't miss it. I think that's about it? It's not too difficult to figure out where you're going. You'll get the hang out it in a few days," he assures Zitao as he walks backwards and disappears back the way they'd came.
Registration isn't at all the process he expects it to be. He doesn't catch a glimpse of Brodsky, whom he'd been hoping to meet. Despite his wishes, the heavy wooden door of the inner office stays closed. The secretary is a stern-faced, diminutive Czech woman in her late sixties who barely glances at his forms before she stamps the top page and sets them aside in a pile somewhere. Zitao winces when he thinks of the countless hours spent filling them out, hands cramped and stained from a blown-out ballpoint pen. He's given a schedule and a map of campus, a kit for PE and almost as an afterthought, a key to his room.
"How are you settling in?" The secretary pulls a thin-lipped smile at him with the beleaguered patience of someone who clearly has better things to do but is trying their best to be polite. "You're rooming with Mr Park and Mr Byun, aren't you?"
"Ah. Yes. Fine," Zitao says because he's not sure what else to say. He's barely been here twelve hours, doesn't even know where he is in relation to the classroom he's supposed to be sitting in right now, and one of his roommates hasn't said a single word to him yet. He supposes things could be worse, but he's going to need more time to answer that question properly.
"We're sorry about the room situation. We honestly weren't expecting you. Housing assignments had been completed for the year when your application arrived." She shakes her head and tuts. "Headmaster insisted on your acceptance, though. Apparently you have an impressive transcript. Or impressive connections."
He leans forward violently in his chair at the mention of his application. "Yes. About that. Who sent it?"
"Who sent it?" She cocks an eyebrow. "What a strange question."
The file cabinet grates loudly as she pulls the second drawer open and skims through the folders until she pulls a thin green folder from somewhere in the middle. An awkward, uneasy silence settles on the room as she reads through the contents. Zitao swears the ticking of the wind-up clock on her desk crescendos with each passing second, every muscle tensing as she turns a page, frowns, and turns another. After an unbearably long pause, during which Zitao can't manage to do anything but hold his breath and watch her eyebrows knit together in a deep frown, she sets the folder down on the desk and shakes her head.
"That information doesn't appear to be readily available," she says slowly, voice tinged with confusion. "There's—your file is incomplete." Her eyes flicker strangely when she looks up at Zitao's face. He's sure he's sporting a similarly bewildered expression. "I'm sure the headmaster has it on his desk. You'll have to come back later and try again."
"Later," he confirms. "I'll be back. I'd like to know." He's too curious to let this rest.
He's out of the chair and halfway to the door when her grating voice stops him in his tracks. "You understand the importance of discretion, correct?"
He's taken aback. "Discretion?" Something in the way he repeats the last word of her question makes her purse her lips.
"There's—I'm not sure why the prefects recommended this particular room assignment. Please understand, Mr Huang, that we do not tolerate the exploitation of our—more..." She trails off, searching for the appropriate word before she settles on, "notorious students."
"Akademie SM prides itself on cultivating an environment in which students are free to learn without fear of distraction from photographers or journalists who may be looking for tabloid fodder in order to injure their reputations or the reputations of their families. Please exercise the utmost caution when discussing President Park's son with anyone. In fact, err on the side of caution. Don't discuss him with anyone."
"President—" Zitao's eyes go wide with recognition. It clicks—Baekhyun's comment last night. Magnanimous son of the President. President Park of South Korea, elected last year by a landslide. Zitao's father had taken an unusual interest in international politics around the time of the election and had seemed enthusiastic when Park had clinched the popular vote. He'll do good things, Zitao. He remembers rolling his eyes—like an election in South Korea would immediately impact anything in his life—and thinks if his father were still alive, this particular turn of events would have inspired an entire soliloquy on the importance of awareness. "Chanyeol's—his son?"
"It's uncouth to insist on students signing a confidentiality agreement," the secretary continues. "Please understand, we're very serious about protecting the privacy of all parties involved. That includes you, Mr Huang—but with Mr Park, there needs to be an additional level of sensitivity. There's no need to cause an international incident. You understand?"
Despite the reasonable line of thinking behind her request, Zitao feels chastised before he's even done anything wrong. He shuts the door of the office behind him and rolls his shoulders with some annoyance. Chanyeol hasn't even spoken to him—he can't imagine it'll be too difficult to preserve his privacy if he never has an exchange with him. Besides, he's not interested in talking to reporters or being a gossip. He wants to finish his schooling and get a good job so he can take care of his mother. If he's able to find out the identity of his mysterious sponsor to thank him and repay the money at a date when he can afford the expense, then so much the better. Chanyeol? Chanyeol's just the rude son of a politician. Easy enough to ignore.
He's halfway to his first class—English, apparently, according to the schedule he's been given—when he realizes he still hasn't called his mother.
She's going to think I'm in a ditch somewhere, he frets, but just then the bell rings. Startled, he sprints across the courtyard, hoping his classroom isn't too difficult to locate, and it's forgotten again.
He loosens his tie just enough to slip it from underneath his collar and hangs it off the arm of the futon. He's terrified to untie it because he knows he'll have to ask someone for help again and he feels stupid enough as it is without having to compound his embarrassment. He'd spent the day attached to Kyungsoo's hip, asking him about everything. Kyungsoo indulged his barrage of questions and didn't once seem put off, but Zitao's not so sure that he wasn't just being nice to the new kid. He doesn't want to wear out his welcome so soon into the school year.
He'd learned that Cermak, the English teacher, was also new this year and had already established a reputation as an incredibly difficult instructor. He'd learned that the History teacher, Malcolm, expected you to use as many primary sources as possible and would forgive late assignments if you stayed late to talk to him about the first World War.
He'd learned that Kyungsoo was a toxophilite during their PE instruction after lunch. Zitao hadn't done much archery in school and he was impressed at Kyungsoo's sure aim, his steady hands, the way his mouth set into a firm line just before he nocked the arrow, elbow springing backward into the release. "Dad expected me to be good at this stuff," Kyungsoo had informed him, referring to his father's position as Army Chief of Staff. Kyungsoo has known Chanyeol and Baekhyun since they were in secondary school together and confided in Zitao that, "Chanyeol's been grumpy ever since the election. He's not used to being restricted quite this severely. Don't worry about him, he'll get over it."
"And if he doesn't?"
"He never stays mad for very long. He's normally a very cheerful guy. He's just under a lot of pressure. Everyone's watching him. People—the media—they keep speculating that he'll follow in his father's footsteps and seek the Presidency. Of course, there are others who say he's not half the man his father is... it's got to be hard, is all I'm saying." At this, Kyungsoo hit a bullseye and reached into his quiver for another arrow. Conversation over.
Zitao sets his stack of books on the floor next to the futon and eases his shoes off. He's got a decent amount of homework but he can't be bothered to look at it for the moment. He just wants to shower—he feels disgusting and his nose wrinkles in disgust when he dips his head against his chest to smell himself. He nearly misses the letter sitting on his pillow. It's the same envelope as before—heavy, brown, unmarked except for his name. He opens it, unfolds the sheet of paper, and reads it a few times.
It was your father's wish for you to receive a world-class education.
He turns over the paper. Blank. He looks back at the message and frowns. Same handwriting as before, as far as he can tell—scrawling, elegant. Obviously not the work of either Chanyeol or Baekhyun (and, considering his lukewarm reception, he doubts they'd have bothered to submit his application for the school in the first place).
It was your father's wish for you to receive a world-class education. He shakes his head. There's no way his father could have anything to do with this—he's been gone for months now and he'd never said anything about sending Zitao abroad before his death. Did the mysterious benefactor know his father? He mulls over the possibility of a secret will or a faked death before he decides he's been watching too many dramas. He could really use a shower before he does anything else.
The bathroom mirrors are fogged from somebody's shower when he wanders in, towel draped over his shoulder. He wipes the mirror and stares at himself, noting exhaustion's calling cards: the greyish undertone in his cheeks, the dark rings under his eyes. Judging by the laundry list of homework he's been given to complete by tomorrow, he's not going to get much sleep tonight, either.
The first shower stall is occupied but the curtain hasn't been drawn completely. Zitao doesn't realize this until it's too late and he's staring at a very naked Baekhyun. His eyes move of their own accord down the long pale line of Baekhyun's body and linger on the cock he's got grasped loosely in his fist, elbow moving in a steady pumping motion as he pushes himself into his fingers. Zitao had completely missed the tell-tale, obscene sound of wet skin on skin, drowned out by the heavy drumming of the shower against the tiled floor of the shower stall. He looks away, embarrassed.
Baekhyun gives a little groan and his eyes crack open. He doesn't seem fazed at all to see Zitao standing there. His lips part against bared teeth, nearly smiling as he says, "What? Why are you standing there? You want in?"
"N—no, I—sorry," he says awkwardly, stepping into the second shower stall and pulling the curtain closed.
"You're still dressed. You shower with your clothes on?" Baekhyun asks. He whimpers and Zitao closes his eyes, trying to stop himself from thinking about it. His traitorous dick stirs slightly in his pants.
"No. I just. No."
"Don't be shy, you—ah." A low, guttural moan floats past the curtain when Baekhyun comes and Zitao has to forcibly put his hand on his erection to stop it from seeking out the source of the sound.
Silence. The shower turns off. A moment later Baekhyun's sticking his face through the curtain to stare owlishly at him. Zitao can't figure out if it's worse for Baekhyun to see the tent in his pants or to see him holding it down. His brain stalls out, unable to come to a decision.
Baekhyun squints against the water trickling down his face. "You okay?"
"I—yeah," Zitao mutters, turning around to tug his shirt over his head.
"Hey. Look, it's fine." Baekhyun chuckles. "I knew you were there. Don't be shy next time, you can come in if you want. It's not a big deal."
Zitao isn't sure how to respond to this, either. Public school has left him woefully unprepared. He's always known he's preferred kissing boys but it hasn't been at the front of his mind in months, not since his father died and he lost all desire to spend time with anyone, romantically or otherwise. And this—this is a lot more than just chaste pecks on the mouth underneath the streetlight outside the comic book store. He's not sure he's ready to skip holding hands and go straight to holding dicks.
"Well. Anyway. Offer stands. I'll see you back in the room?" Baekhyun retreats, leaving Zitao to shiver despite the humidity of the bathroom.
He showers until the water runs in cold rivulets down his back, tugging at himself with enough urgency that it almost hurts to come. Afterwards, he turns off the water and leans his head against the wall, shoulders heaving with the exertion. He's nervous to go back in the room, worried that Baekhyun will take one look at his face and know everything that's running through his mind.
When he can't avoid it any longer, he returns to the room. He's relieved to see that Baekhyun's hunched over his desk reading a textbook, a large pair of headphones clamped securely over his ears. He doesn't notice when Zitao pulls on a pair of sweatpants and crawls under the covers, hands pressed over his cheeks to hide the blush creeping into them as he replays Baekhyun's moans over and over in his head. He reads under there for a while by the light of a tiny LED flashlight until his eyes hurt and he gives up for the evening. The rest can wait. It'll have to, at least until he gets into something resembling a proper sleep schedule.
He must fall asleep at some point shortly after that because when he wakes up to the sound of a door creaking shut, the room is dark. The English textbook slides off his chest and falls on the floor when he sits up to look around. Nothing's out of place. Baekhyun's slumped face-first into his pillow; Chanyeol's sprawled across the covers with his arm flung over the edge of the bed. He whispers their names but the sound hangs in the quiet room for a moment before dissipating, unanswered.
Probably someone down the hall going to the bathroom, he rationalizes, burying his face back into the covers.
Still, it takes longer to fall asleep this time.